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'The Shallow State': The Divide Between Trump's Words And His Administration's Policies


The president's top national security team delivered a pointed message today. Russia is continuing to attack America's democracy. A little more than two weeks ago, President Trump stood next to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, and he refused to confront him about election interference. It was another example of the disconnect between what the president says - or tweets - and what top White House officials and cabinet secretaries do. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The sheer number of top officials in the briefing room today was meant to be a show of force. And their message was something the president himself has never delivered.


KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs.

LIASSON: Today's high-powered briefing by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and others was about the government's approach to a problem the president often still calls a hoax. And it wasn't the only time this week that the gulf between the president and his top officials was on full display. Just yesterday, the president woke up early and in a tweet told his attorney general what he wanted. Quote, "Jeff Sessions should stop the Mueller investigation." And he told him when he wanted it done - quote, "right now." But then his top lawyers and his press secretary jumped into action. No, no, they said. The president wasn't issuing any commands at all.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: It's not an order. It's the president's opinion.

LIASSON: The president's opinion, expressed repeatedly, is that the Mueller investigation is a rigged witch hunt - something else that top administration officials, including the president's FBI Director Christopher Wray, also disagree with.


CHRISTOPHER WRAY: I do not consider Director Mueller to be on a witch hunt.

LIASSON: Former Clinton White House official Elaine Kamarck says Donald Trump increasingly operates as a party of one, untethered from his own administration.

ELAINE KAMARCK: This president simply seems to wake up in the morning and say things with nothing behind them - no preparation, no coherency. And it's causing a lot of confusion in his White House because they're always scrambling after him.

LIASSON: Sometimes that scramble ties Cabinet secretaries in knots. Last week, the president told reporters he would be willing to meet with the leaders of Iran.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I would certainly be willing to meet.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you have preconditions for that meeting?

TRUMP: No preconditions, none. If they want to meet, I'll meet.

LIASSON: But hours later on CNBC, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a long list of preconditions.


MIKE POMPEO: If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behavior, agree that it's worthwhile to enter in a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation, then the president has said he's prepared to sit down and have a conversation with him.

LIASSON: Then there was the time national security adviser John Bolton was asked on ABC about the president's suggestion that he might recognize Russia's forced annexation of Crimea.


JOHN BOLTON: Look. That is not the policy of the United States.

LIASSON: The difference between what the president says and the policy of the United States is yet another question that tripped up the secretary of state, who seemed to suggest to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that presidential pronouncements were not always U.S. policy. But then Pompeo asked for a do-over.


POMPEO: I misspoke. It is the case. The president calls the ball. His statements are in fact policy.

LIASSON: Is that clear? Not really. Elaine Kamarck says what is clear is that the president is pretty disconnected from the government he runs and the political party that he heads.

KAMARCK: Just the other day, he said he was going to shut down the government because they haven't appropriated money for the wall. And it took hours - if not minutes - for Mitch McConnell to say, no, we're not shutting down the government.

LIASSON: There was the time Trump said he'd forgive Puerto Rico's debt, and his budget director said, no, that wasn't happening. And the time at NATO headquarters when Trump refused to say the U.S. was committed to NATO's mutual defense pact - his defense secretary and vice president rushed out to say, in effect, the president's words - or in this case, the absence of them - was not U.S. policy toward NATO.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Make no mistake. Our commitment is unwavering.

LIASSON: Elaine Kamarck says that, on some level, this means what the president of the United States says doesn't matter.

KAMARCK: What's important to remember is we have never been a government of men. We are a government of laws. So the laws of the land, the treaties that we have signed too, that's what is operative for the United States government - not what any president may say one morning.

LIASSON: So right now, the U.S. government is operating on two levels. There's the president and what he says. And then there's the administration and what it does. Trump and his supporters have often complained about the deep state - supposedly a shadowy cabal of opposition bureaucrats deep inside the government. But maybe the biggest impediment to the president isn't the deep state at all. It's the shallow state that exists right below Donald Trump at the Cabinet level. That's what we saw today - an administration willing to send a strong message to Russia even when the president is not. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.